Our destination was Ricardo Campground in Red Rock Canyon State Park near Cantil, CA, which according to Mapquest was 139.89 miles or 2 hours 29 minutes away. On this trip it was myself, and my good friends Wajid Drabu and Mark Ryan. Wajid is a photographer and Mark is a cinematographer. Mark is also a sommelier, so when he’s around we can always look forward to tasting some new and fantastic wines while hanging out beside a campfire.
After a few hours and several stops along the way, we arrived at Ricardo Camp on the West side of highway 14. Camping in the state park is only allowed within the campground so we immediately went to stake our claim for fear that most of the good sites would be taken. Our fears were all for not. Other than a small boy scout troop, the campground was relatively empty so we had our choice of several excellent locations. We ended up claiming site #32 and set up out tents.
Once we had camp set up, we headed to the deserted Visitors Center to pay for our site and to try to get some sort of cell service. Our friend Luc, along with his daughter Nova, and son Paul, would be joining us later and we needed to let them know what campsite we were in. Needless to say, we did not get cell phone service.
We drove south on Hwy 14 in search of cell service and a gas station where we could top off our tank and more importantly, buy firewood, since we were afraid we couldn’t count on anyone showing up to man the visitor center. We quickly arrived at The Jawbone Canyon store (35.295812Lat. -118.006316Long.)
The store is a fueling station and oasis for many ATV and motorcyclers enjoying the dry and dusty terrain within the Jawbone Canyon OHV Area. The store sold everything riders might want or need from cold beer to full fingered gloves but most importantly for us, firewood. Most “convenient stores” in California sell firewood for like 5-6 dollars for a small bundle. Not the Jawbone Canyon Store. For 14 dollars you get to grab a shopping cart and fill it with various sized pieces. The neater you stacked it, the more you could get in. We piled the wood into the cart, strategically placing and organizing the various sized pieces. I joked about my architectural degree finally paying off as we pushed the cart with its narrow, hard wheels, across the dirt and gravel parking lot and loaded the wood into the cargo bag on top of the Land Rover. We left Luc a voice mail message and headed back towards Red Rock Canyon.
We piled out of the car and grabbed our cameras. The weather was very overcast and we were afraid of the poor lighting conditions but we were optimistic that it was going to break up. We scrambled around, exploring and photographing the colorful rock formations.
After an hour and an half or so, we saw Luc’s car below, so we headed down to meet up with him. We headed back to site 32 and set up Luc’s tent. We knew there were only a few hours remaining before dark, and we wanted to head out and do a little off road exploring of the surrounding area as the sun was setting. We headed North on Hwy 14 and at 35.377083Lat. -117.980648Long. we left the pavement. The dirt trail started out pretty easy but was quite narrow in sections. we continued to follow it through a variety of desert terrain consisting of open washes and ravines. At 35.391945Lat. -117.972540Long. we came to a steep technical section that after careful scrutiny we decided was passable. I put the Land Rover in ”rock crawl” mode and slowly started up the steep grade. After maneuvering around several large boulders and not driving off the edge, I managed to make it to the top.
Inspired by my success, Luc slammed his vehicle into gear and sped up the first steep section. He quickly halted near the top and with Mark’s expert spotting made his way through the rocky technical section.
With a sense of accomplishment and the sun beginning to set we headed back to camp for dinner, red wine and a campfire.
With an appetizer of sourdough baguette, crackers and a triple cream Brie cheese we opened the first bottle of wine, a 2009 Happy Canyon Vineyards “Chukker” Santa Ynez Valley, Cabernet Franc. Dinner consisted of grilled Cornish game hens with a Raspberry marinade and a side of brown rice with hazelnuts. This may sound perhaps a bit extravagant for a camping meal but it has always been my belief that if you’re “roughing” it, you should really go out of your way to enjoy some of the finer things in life. In my opinion, food and wine are some of those things and when your car camping, there is no reason to be eating ramen noodles or dried rice and beans. We thoroughly enjoyed the meal and continued to sample the other delicious wines. The additional wines we consumed were in order as follows…
2009 Señorío de P. Peciña Joven Rioja Tempranillo
2009 Camino de Navaherreros Vinos de Madrid Garnacha
2010 Bodegas Norton Malbec MendozaArgentina
During dinner cleanup, Luc, Nova and Paul headed to the interpretive center for the live snake show. The park rangers had a snake expert volunteer that brought in a rattlesnake for kids to view and touch. They were taught about the meanings of different rattlesnake posturing, how to avoid getting bit and what to do and not do if you are bit. We met them at the center and viewed the various fossil exhibits and headed back to camp. The kids went to sleep and we stayed up finishing the wines, discussing different worldly travels and let the fire burn out. We then retired for the night under the partly cloudy moon free sky.
The next morning, as I poked my head out of the tent,the temperature was holding steady at 38 degrees. I noticed the horizon was getting lighter and I could see a gradient of pink and lavender with the silhouette of clouds intermingled. I quietly got out of the tent and got my camera gear in hopes of not waking Luc’s kids. I heard the rustling of Wajid in the tent and I knew he was getting warm clothes on and preparing to exit the tent. We drove and walked around taking photos of the area while we were waiting for the others to wake.
It wasn’t long and we headed back to camp for some hot coffee and to get breakfast on the grill. Everyone else was asleep, but as the scent of breakfast filled the air people began to stir. After breakfast we began to disassemble camp and pack up while the kids played in the sand and Wajid was photographing the nearby Joshua trees.
Within an hour we were packed up and ready to head out of camp in search of more off roading adventures. We headed South on Hwy 14. (35.3013530Lat., -118.001714Long.) We reached the Jawbone Canyon OHV area. Jawbone Canyon is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and provides off road trails for recreational use that encompass both wide open desert flats and scenic vistas. We headed down Jawbone Canyon road and turned off the pavement.
We drove up a sandy and rocky service road quickly gaining altitude. With Luc in the lead we continued to follow the dirt road higher up the mountain, stopping several times to take in the view of the desert over 1200 feet below.
The trail twisted and turned, winding through some narrow valleys that were cloud covered at their peaks. We popped out onto the south east side of the mountain and once again had a view of the highway below. We pulled the vehicles to the side of the trail and made sandwiches with a variety of meats and cheeses, spicy mustard and arugula. As we ate we all talked about what an excellent time we had had. We said our goodbyes and drove the remaining dusty 2 miles towards the highway and once again hit the pavement and headed home.
Where else can you camp so close to the base of colorful desert cliffs? Red Rock Canyon State Park is a little known gem that I highly recommend if you enjoy outdoor photography. At $25 a night, Ricardo Campground isn’t any more or less expensive than other California State Park Campgrounds and if you enjoy desert scenery, easy hikes and some easy to moderate off roading, this could be a destination to put on your list of must do’s.